Sri Lanka: A Sinhala Crisis ?

Sri Lanka is in an unprecedented crisis. People are literally on the street for two reasons. One, they are queuing up for essential commodities. Two, they are protesting against the incumbent government. 

Essential items such as petroleum products, including petrol, diesel, carnosine, and cooking gas (liquefied petroleum gas), are in short supply, disrupting all aspects of individual and social life. The foreign currency reserve dwindled and the Sri Lankan rupee crumbled against the dollar. Consequently, inflation is also skyrocketing. Extensive power cuts became the order of the day. The poor and the vulnerable are paying the price mainly, although most people are affected by the crisis one way or the other. A combination of factors, including long-term policy blunders, economic mismanagement, misguided policies of the present government, and unwise borrowing, especially from China, led to the ongoing crisis. 

Initial Tolerance

Although angry protesters are literally on the street throughout the country, initially, they were considerably tolerant, trying to manage their lives with limited but available resources. Tolerance mainly emanated from two factors. One, this is their government. They elected this government with a strong endorsement only recently. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president with 52.25 percent of the votes cast in 2019. His primary challenger Sajith Premadasa polled only 42 percent of the votes. His party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), won the August 2020 parliamentary election with 59.09 percent of the votes cast, an extraordinary achievement. Therefore, this is their government or what could be termed “ape aanduwa.” The current leaders were dear to most of them. It was not easy to hate them. Hence, the tolerance. Two, they thought the crisis was temporary and would be resolved soon. They did not understand the deep-rooted causes of the crisis. The lack of awareness also contributed to the initial tolerance. 

Protest  

The government response was disappointing. First, leading members of the government did not impart the impression that they appreciated the hardship people were facing. One minister claimed that the long queues seen in, for example, the gas stations were an opposition conspiracy. Another minister did not know the current price of a liter of petrol. The government leaders also failed to take responsibility for the calamity. For example, when addressing the nation on March 16, 2022, President Rajapaksa claimed that “this crisis was not created by me.” Most importantly, the government did not make any changes in policy or personnel, even to appease the people. The Prime minister (Mahinda Rajapaksa) could not be dismissed because he is a brother and leader of the SLPP. The economic affairs minister (Basil Rajapaksa) could not be removed because he is a brother. At least some changes at the Central Bank could have been made. Political loyalties most likely prevented changes at the second-tier institutional level. 

The trend and the way the administration responded to the crisis tested the patience of the (suffering) people. They started to gather in small groups to vent their anger and frustration and extensively used social media for the same purpose. Last week, there was a call for a nationwide protest against the government on April 3. People were asked to come out of their homes to the street at 3 pm. Nevertheless, on March 31, presumably coordinated via social media, a group of protesters turned up in front of the president’s house in Nugegoda. The crowd chanted, “go-home-gota.” The slogan also became a Hashtag. Before becoming president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was a citizen of the United States (and Sri Lanka). However, he renounced his American citizenship in order to contest the 2019 presidential election. By chanting “go-home-gota,” the crowd implied that he should step down as president and return to the U.S. 

Violent Response 

Unexpectedly, however, the protest turned violent. Properties were damaged, and a military transport bus was set on fire. Violent incidents were reported from other areas as well. The government deployed troops in Nugegoda and other troubled areas. Reportedly, several journalists were attacked by the armed forces and the police. About fifty, mostly young people, were detained and produced in a court of law. The people’s anger was such that many people turned up on the court premises to cheer the arrested protesters. Several attorneys also came forward to help the protesters—a Sri Lanka first. 

The government declared a curfew to curb the protest. Although the immediately declared curfew was removed, it was reimposed the next day. Presumably, the administration would continue with the curfew until April 4. It does not want to see the whole country mobilizing against the government on April 3. In addition, the government also reintroduced the Emergency Regulations (ER), which provide extraordinary powers to the administration and the armed forces. The government believes that the ER would help curb the protest. 

What do the developments of the last week indicate? One, the people of the country are highly frustrated and are at the boiling point. They could quickly resort to violence. The government has also clearly signaled that it will not budge and will respond in kind. Another notable factor is that there is still strong support for the Rajapaksa government. Many Sinhalese still love President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Rajapaksa. These loyalists could also use violence against violent as well as peaceful protesters. Theoretically, it is possible that the military bus in Nugegoda was set on fire by government supporters.   

A confrontation of this nature already took place in Jaffna. According to media reports, a government supporter tried to disrupt the protest campaign led by Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Member of Parliament Hirunika Premachandra in Jaffna. The Hirunika group and the public reacted violently, leading to a physical attack. Therefore, a violent conflict between the dissatisfied public and government loyalists could not be ruled out. The armed forces would support the government loyalists. This scenario is a real possibility if the crisis cannot be resolved immediately. 

The possibility of opposition parties trying to unseat the government through parliamentary means, for example, by adopting a no-confidence motion, could also exacerbate the tension. Already a dissident group of parliamentarians under Udaya Gammanpila of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya and Wimal Weerawansa of the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna has been formed to unseat the government and form an interim cabinet. Gammanpila and Weerawansa were ministers in the incumbent government until very recently.     

This possible conflict most likely would take place within the Sinhala community. Minorities, especially the Tamils, would only play a marginal role because the Tamils of the Northern province and the Sinhalese experience the deprivation differently. The Northern and Eastern provinces Tamils endured severe hardship, physically and mentally, during the civil war involving the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Northern scarcity partly emanated from the government-imposed economic embargo. Currently, what is happening in Sri Lanka is not new to the Tamil community. Therefore, it is possible that they experience the hardship differently. The shock is less severe for them. This perhaps is one reason why fewer protests are reported from the North-East. Therefore, if the present tension and the conflict escalate, it will be a conflict of the Sinhalese.  (eurasia)

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